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Erich Hartmann

German ace of WWII, Erich "Bubi" Hartmann is the world's all time "Ace of Aces" with 352 confirmed victories. Nicknamed the "Blonde Knight of Germany", Hartmann spent his entire career on Germany's Eastern front, where he recorded 345 victories against Soviet aircraft and 7 against the Americans. He flew an amazing 1,425 combat missions, all in the the Messerschmitt Bf-109. During this time he was involved in over 800 dogfights and was shot down 18 times. For his victories, he was personally awarded the Knights Cross to the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds by Adolf Hitler. Hartmann's skills were so effective that the Soviets placed a 10,000 ruble price on his head and singled him out as a war criminal for destroying so much Soviet property. During his fighting career he earned many nicknames. His squadron mates called him "Bubi" for his youthful appearance. The Russian's called him the "Black Devil of the Ukraine". But the world knows him as the "Greatest Ace of all Time".

Born in Germany in 1922, Hartmann began his career with the Lustrate at the young age of 18. He reported to JAG 52 on the Eastern Front in October of 1942, at just 20 years old. He began flying missions, but did not record his first kill until his 19th combat mission, where it's reported he downed an IL2 "Stormovik". His kill total did not start to climb until the summer of 1943. In July of that year he downed 23 planes, 49 more in August, and then 24 in September. These are impressive numbers due to the fact that he took a months leave during this time frame, making these numbers really stand out. By the end of 1943, his kill total had reached 159 and he was awarded the Knights Cross in October for his exploits. His total continued to climb during the winter of 1944, but not nearly as fast as it did during the summer before. The main problem was the German planes did not function well in the harsh Russian winters. The guns froze up and the engines would not start on cold mornings. A captured Russian aviator showed the Germans a couple of tricks that allowed them to not only start their planes, but to keep the guns from jamming.

Hartmann rose to command Gruppe No.1 of the Luftwaffe's most successfull fighter wing, the Jagdgeschwader 52. On March 2, 1944 he downed 10 planes in one day pushing his total over 200. That same day he was awarded the Knights Cross and Oak Leaves. The kill total kept climbing. He reached 250 and was awarded the Knights Cross, Oak Leaves, and Swords. Another big day came on August 24, 1944 when he had another 10 plane day and pushed his kill total to 301. At this time he was award Germany's highest honor, the Knights Cross, Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds. During his leave he married Ursula Paesch. He was also grounded by Herman Goring at this time, but Major General Adolph Galland went to bat for the young ace and had him reinstated. But he was not to return to his former squadron, instead he headed back to school to learn to fly the ME-262 Jet fighter. This prospect of flying in JG-44, know as the Expert Squadron, did not appeal to the young pilot. He longed to return to his beloved JG-52 and do what he could for his country. On his return, he faced the Russians until the end of the war. He also tangled with the American's over the oil fields of Rumania, he was to down 6 American Mustangs. He is rumored to have downed several Hurricanes and Spitfires, which were flown by Russian pilots.

Messerschmitt Bf-109

The thought of an aviator actually downing 80 planes was totally unimaginable in the early days of aerial combat. When the Red Baron did that in World War I, many people thought it was a record that would never be broken. With the outbreak of World War II, the seemingly unattainable 80 kills soon fell by the way side as German pilots reached totals of over 100kills. The first pilot to reach this lofty goal of 100 kills, was German ace Werner Molders. He managed to down 101 planes before he himself died in a plane crash. Many German pilots reached the 100 kill level, 15 reached 200 or more, and 2 scored 300 or more aerial victories. The war was nearing it end now and Hartmann's total kept climbing higher and higher. It finally stopped on May 8, 1945 when he took his final combat mission and downed his 352nd aircraft, a YAK7 fighter. Later that day he landed his plane and surrendered to the British forces in the area. Hartmann's war was finally over.

He was turned over to the Russian's, part of a deal worked out between the allies. A war crimes trial followed and he was sent to a work camp in Russia. Hartmann spent 10 1/2 years behind Soviet barbed wire, surviving prison uprisings, hunger strikes, resistance against the NKVD and forced labor. In 1955, West Germany secured his release and he was reunited with his wife. Three years later he was chosen to command the first West German air force all-jet fighter wing, flying the Sabre F-86 jet fighters. During this time, he made several trips to the United States. While there, he shared his experience of 825 air battles with American pilots. Hartmann served with the West German Luftwaffe until the early 1970's.